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The Silence of the Lambs

directed by Jonathan Demme, written by Ted Tally. Starring Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins and Scott Glenn. Reviewed by Jonathan Barons.

First Appeared in Burnt Toast#8, 1991

Horror is basically the threat of pain. A good horror story will threaten its audience with the possibility that the pain inflicted upon its characters could be transferred to them (probably around a dark corner with no prior warning). This pain could be psychological or emotional, but the quickest and most effective threat is that of physical pain. The reason why people enjoy toying with this threat is deeply seated in the human psyche and thus difficult to fathom. Nevertheless the human enjoyment of fear is borne out by the success of increasingly graphic horror stories, in this case, on film.

The writer, Thomas Harris, created a classic "monster" in the form of Dr Hannibal (the Cannibal) Lecter. A genius psychiatrist, Lecter eventually decided treating people wasn't as enjoyable as eating them. The thrill of Lecter's character is highlighted by the first glimpse the film offers us of his visage. FBI trainee, Clarice Starling (played completely convincingly by Jodie Foster) is sent into the dark depths of the criminally insane to interview Lecter. As she walks through the dungeon-like corridor, she passes several cells. The first with a dark, brooding figure staring malevolently out through the bars of his cell, the next with a clear nutter yelling abuse from the darkness, but then Hannibal's cell reveals a well presented Dr Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) standing tall in the middle of the room with a disturbingly welcoming smile on his face.

The pleasant and calm Lecter is confusing to the viewer who is first warmed up with the chilling warnings given to Starling before she entered. "Lecter is never allowed out of his cell without full restraints and a mouth piece", "Don't touch the glass of his cell", and "Never take anything from him." Dr Chilton (in charge of the prison) further enhanced the warning by telling of a time when Hannibal was taken to the dispensary complaining of chest pains. His restraints were removed and he promptly attacked the nurse, "he broke her jaw to get at her tongue. His pulse never got over 85, even when he swallowed it."

Lecter fulfils his role of monster/killer later in the film but only after convincing us of his calm level-headed mind, thus making his darker truth all the more frightening. Is this contradiction in character Gothic? (see BoJ in BT#1)

The plot of the film introduces an interesting twist. The FBI seek to use Hannibal Lecter's genius to help solve the currently ensuing case of another serial killer, Buffalo Bill, who is skinning portions of his victims. It is Clarice Starling who is sent to entice Lecter into solving the mystery of Buffalo Bill's identity. It is these scenes between Lecter and Starling that provide the great moments of the film, and Lecter's blackmailing of Starling into telling him her childhood drama's that reveal the importance of the title.

I am not familiar with Harris' original book, but as a film, The Silence of the Lambs is pure horror entertainment, providing both an original story laced with 'threat of pain' (made all the worse by the 'realistic', not supernatural, subject matter) and two entertaining characters. Every opportunity to enhance Lecter's character, without over-indulgence, is taken by Anthony Hopkin's and completed by Demme's direction. The director also manipulates another fine scene involving a door bell (I don't want to spoil it by spilling the beans) which was just as entertaining on second viewing.

A short mention of visual gore is justified in a review of Lambs, as the director has no qualms about graphic depiction. It is true that horror-films can succeed without gore (surprisingly there was almost no blood in Halloween, but the implied violence was horrific). However the impact of Lambs was strengthened by a visual assault on our senses. I did feel that some scenes may have been a touch over the top (I can't wait to see what they do to it when it comes to TV), but apparently the book was even more graphic! Mind you the gore didn't actually bother me, but recent arguments over the deserved censorship rating of RoboCop 2 made me look at it critically (Lambs is rated M at the cinema).

Silence of the Lambs is a classic, being both well performed with a complex story, and controversial, making it a dead cert at the box office. The bottom line is that this movie is entertaining and should leave you guilty that you were so entertained by a serial killer.


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